Saturday, June 07, 2008

Where Blogging Goes Astray

I'm sure all of us can remember back to a time when we defended a friend - who we knew to be in the wrong - simply because they were your friend. Maybe, in public, that's often a good thing - but it's always a disservice to our friend if, after the dispute, we don't take them aside and tell them to stop being an idiot. It's no different in the blogosphere: we don't always appreciate criticism directed toward us, but that doesn't mean the criticism always comes without merit. Every once in a while, the media or a politician will criticize 'the blogs' and usually have no idea what they're talking about, but that's not always the case. In the rare instances when our critics have a point, we can't allow our personal feelings to get in the way of constructive criticism.

Bloggers generally cringe when we're told that we live in our mothers' basements, or that we don't know what we're talking about, or that we're just a bunch of trash talkers with nothing positive to say and nothing to contribute. The progressive blogosphere is mostly middle-aged, middle-income and is comprised of experts writing about what they do and care about every day. In essence, the naysayers are almost always wrong. Yet, with so few people actually taking part in blogs - all the while hearing about them daily on TV or at work - there's a lot of confusion going on and we're doing nothing to prevent it. That could be our biggest sin to date.

While we're not a bunch of trash-talking kids, consumed with spreading baseless rumors and a festering anger - safely behind our masks of anonymity - it's certainly out there. It may not be the progressive blogosphere, but it is the progressive blogosphere's problem. The worst criticisms - being unaccountable, uneducated, mean spirited and counterproductive - isn't completely without merit when we're doing little prevent it. Anonymous posters, mostly at online newspapers and local Internet forums, are ruining the fun for everyone. The worst offender, locally, is WickedLocal - and, unfortunately, townies across the state think it's the 'blogs.'

Making matters worse is the fact that some bloggers are rushing to defend it. Now, of course, any time someone criticizes the blogosphere, bloggers and readers will be quick to react - often zealously. Diarist Sean Roche unfortunately missed the point, blowing aside sage advice, in a diary over at BlueMassGroup. Lincoln-Sudbury's Superintendent used part of his commencement speech at their school's graduation to courageously tackle the anonymous postings of adults in the community, imploring his students never to stoop to their level. Here's more of what he had to say.
Here's my advice: if you ever find yourself in a position where you are writing things for public consumption that have no intent other than to cause pain or cast aspersions on people, call people's character into question, question their ethics or honesty - and you're afraid to sign your name because if anyone ever knew it was you writing it, you'd be ashamed and embarrassed, you're on the wrong track.
His only problem, in fact, was calling these postings a "blog," when it's really the anonymous comments over at his town's Wickedlocal online newspaper. His point is sound and we'd all do well to take it and repeat it to others. Yet, it's becoming all too common for people in towns to refer to the comment sections of online newspapers as "the blogs." It's a dangerous precedent that must be kept in check, immediately. Unfortunately people like me - who have vast experience in the medium - just haven't been quick enough to correct people.

It's easy to see where the confusion grows: most of the population's never been to a blog; people just think any online commentary is simply 'blogging.' It would be nice if we could chalk this up to one big confusion, but by allowing this misunderstanding to take place, the reputation of blogs as useful tools is being sullied, all the while the real culprits are free from actually fixing the problem.

Let's reiterate the point: if the problem is confused, the solution isn't going to be any clearer. Just like you can't cure the cold with antibiotics, we can't cure the problem of unaccountable commenters at newspapers if people think it's 'the blogs.' So, unfortunately, this big misunderstanding in labels is only exacerbating the problem: while people are calling for a fix in 'the blogs,' newspapers have no real incentive to fix it, because they aren't 'the blogs.' Many local editors and the people above their heads probably aren't sophisticated enough to realize they're the ones propagating this problem to begin with.

The few savvy enough to comprehend this certainly aren't going to be the ones quick to fix it; it's a misunderstanding they're only happy to reinforce. Quite inappropriately, the media views blogging as the competition. Many journalists view bloggers as 'bad.' All that, while the vast majority of the population doesn't even know what blogging is. The combination results in the majority of the public missing out on a real societal asset.

So, what the heck are we going to do about it? First, let's analyze the problems and possible solutions.

What are the problems?
  • Anonymity.
  • Unaccountability.
  • A general ignorance about the web 2.0.
What are the solutions?
  • Solving anonymity: the universal acceptance of 'signing in.'
  • Solving the accountability gap: the universal promotion of online meritocracy; making newspapers buy into the importance of building user-name reputation.
  • Solving Web ignorance: education. Everyone should know what a blog is versus a comment versus a forum.
Bloggers, commenters and internet-savvy people need to become involved; we need to recognize there's a real problem here - and take ownership of it. We can't be so naive as to think that anything on the Internet is a good thing, because the bad elements threaten to ruin the potential of what we can truly accomplish.

If the vast majority of the population doesn't value the medium of blogging, it's only going to be that much harder to gain traction and sustain progress. Everyone needs to know the difference between a blog, an Internet forum and comments - whether people use them or not. That's the only way to make sure the media holds local papers accountable when their comment sections run amok. Newspapers make accountability in letters and opinions paramount; online comments shouldn't be any different. In both cases people are using the brand of a newspaper to give their opinions greater weight, so newspapers should have an interest in stake here. Most importantly, when it comes to being online, while being anonymous can be a good thing, being unaccountable is never acceptable. The progressive blogosphere is built around that premise, but we can't rest until it's a universal standard all across the Internet.


Anonymous said...

Ryan, Great comments, as usual.
The use by newspapers of unmoderated and uncontrolled comments is clearly an issue that requires attention.

Anonymous said...

Some blogs are exceptional in content and adequately compensate for the decline in local coverage.

And there are a wide number of exceptional town discussion forums that serve to provide a wide array from great information to sometimes simple problems, like 'how do I resolve...?' 'who do I talk to about ....?'

But you've proposed sensible solutions for the unmoderated and anonymous stuff that are being allowed that would be transformative and sorely needed.

Good suggestions.


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